MAGUINDANAO RELIEF WORKERS SURVIVE CROSSFIRE IN ARMY-BIFF CLASHES

DATU SALIBO, Maguindanao — Aid workers in Maguindanao have survived many hostilities, even risking lives to serve internally displaced families in Maguindanao during both man-made and natural calamities.

But Wednesday’s encounter was close that aid workers continue to talk about it to date.

The Peoples Medical Team (PMT), Maguindanao’s emergency relief assistance unit, was almost caught in the crossfire when government forces and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) traded mortars in Barangay Tee, Datu Salibo, Maguindanao.

Emergency workers were trapped as the protagonists trade mortars but all of them, numbering about 15, survived unscathed, according to Lynette Estandarte, focal person of PMT, said.

Estandarte, also Maguindanao’s budget officer, said the team was preparing to leave the village where the relief operation was conducted when automatic gunfire were heard near them. Not far away were soldiers in combat position firing their guns.

“Bullet sounds were so close to us, we were told to lie down,” she told reporters.

Few minutes later, the soldiers told the relief aid workers to pack up and leave. They did hurriedly.

Being in the middle of the battlefield was not new to air workers having risked lives so the displaced families can be served.

“We have been to this situation in the past but this one was so scary, hearing the sounds of bullets passing so close to us,” Estandarte said.

The military said the BIFF has grouped into smaller teams apparently to misled military forces. They even mingled to civilians and most likely received relief aid from government agencies.

Capt. Joann Petinglay, speaking for the military, admitted it could be a possibility. “But if they are unarmed, we cannot just pounced on them,” she said in a radio interview, adding that it was difficult to determine whether those queuing for relief goods are BIFF or ordinary civilians.

Despite the scary experience, Estandarte said the PMT will continue its mission of helping the displaced families survived the daily ordeal of living in cramped evacuation sites.

“This is the mandate given us by Gov. (Esmael) Mangudadatu, we will continue to discharge this mandate,” she said.

Fighting continued Thursday between elements of the 2nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade and BIFF in Datu Salibo’s village of Tee.

So far, four soldiers were killed and 25 others were hurt, all due to land mines and improvised bombs planted by the BIFF as they moved deep into the marshland.

An Army officer, who asked not to be named, admitted more than 50 BIFF have been killed in the month-long sporadic skirmishes but the military would not make it official because no dead bodies were accounted.

The military launched air and ground assaults against the BIFF since Feb. 5 after the bandit harassed government forces securing a flood control project in Barangay Tee and torched two backhoe equipment.

Clearing operations are underway before the Army gives the green light for displaced families to return home. PNA/northboundasia.com